Irish cathedral gutted by fire at Christmas is reborn

In a corner of Ireland, hope has replaced desperation as parishioners watch their own Christmas miracle unfold in front of their eyes.

St Mel's Cathedral in the small town of Longford is being restored to its former glory three years after it was destroyed by a fire on Christmas Day.

The imposing 19th century edifice in the Irish midlands was completely gutted in a blaze that started just a few hours after the annual Catholic ritual of Christmas midnight mass in 2009.

"In Longford we have known what it is like to be enveloped by darkness," Bishop Colm O'Reilly said at midnight mass Monday, exactly three years since he delivered his Christmas homily in the cathedral hours before the devastating fire.

"This was the kind of Christmas we had three years ago when we had the dreadful accident which destroyed our cathedral."

The bishop was speaking in the modest surroundings of a school sports hall, the temporary site for mass during the reconstruction.

Nearby, what is believed to be the largest church restoration project in Western Europe is taking place, with hopes high that it will be completed in time to hold midnight mass there on Christmas Eve 2014.

The project, costing an estimated 30 million euros ($39.5 million), will create nearly 150 jobs, a badly needed boost in a country with an unemployment rate of 14.6 percent.

The bishop said: "We are rebuilding a fine and ancient church wrecked by a disastrous fire.

"The circumstances in which this happened have made Longford's cathedral better known than any other in Ireland and also well known outside of the country."

Reconstruction began on the project this year, after two years of planning and preparation. As a protected structure under Irish law, the cathedral has to be meticulously rebuilt like-for-like.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," said stonemason Cathal Cregg, whose team is charged with replacing 26 eight-metre-tall (26-foot-tall) limestone columns and a host of intricate stone details.

"You serve your time as an apprentice the old way, using all the traditional methods but then you go your whole life without getting the chance to use these skills.

"All of sudden something like this comes up and you're back to basics. It's just brilliant to be associated with something as immense as this," he told AFP.

The fire began in a chimney flue, leading from a boiler, and spread rapidly. The exterior escaped relatively unscathed, but the interior was completely lost.

Parishioners woke up to the sight of the towering building in flames -- the first most heard of the fire was when they arrived for mass that morning.

For local people, there is a sense of excitement now the building work has finally begun.

"Apart from being a cathedral it is also the parish church for Longford. The timing of the fire on Christmas Day was extremely traumatic," head of the restoration committee, Seamus Butler, told AFP.

"One reason I got involved with the project was because I had five christenings, five communions, five confirmations and two funerals in the cathedral."

He added: "Similarly to a lot of other people in Longford many of the big moments of their lives have been celebrated with St Mel's at the heart of it. We look forward to having it back."

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